Alex Pearl is interested in the way we relate to machines, particularly in the way we relate to them when they break down. This area of research feels increasingly relevant as our interaction with machines increases on a daily basis.
We rely on machines for many of our daily tasks – from drying hair to toasting bread, moving us around to documenting thoughts, capturing images to sharing almost everything, we probably engage more with machines than we do with other human-beings. We are so continuously contiguous with our phones that we are virtually cyborgs, and with the development of technological implants, that science fiction is very close to becoming a reality.
Our exchanges with machines are usually off-hand and casual – if we are familiar with them we use them almost without thinking. But what happens when machines break down? How does our relationship with them alter? This question is at the crux of Alex’s work, and the machines he makes often do break down as he builds in a tendency to failure, whether through bad workmanship (deliberate or otherwise) or by constructing something that only just works, thereby increasing the likelihood of it not working.
When a machine breaks down we pay a lot more attention to it – feelings of frustration or anger are sometimes vented on it, and we often act as if the machine is sentient and has chosen to break down in some kind of malicious attempt to stop us doing from what we were trying to do. This anthropomorphism of machines can induce us to shout or swear at them, call them names, or perhaps (in the famous scene in Fawlty Towers where Basil’s car breaks down) thrash them with a branch.
The humorous aspect of this behavior has not gone unnoticed by Alex, and he exploits the ridiculousness of our relationship with, and attitude towards these amalgemations of dumb materials to produce works that highlight some of these emotions and reactions. He produces works that build towards collapse, and teeter on the edge of failure, drawing us in with the thrill of anticipation as we wait for something momentous to occur, until we begin to understand that maybe nothing will take place, and walk away bemused but maybe also amused.
The machines and videos displayed in Love Machines have largely been conceived and constructed in FACTLab, an open facility developed by FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool) to allow artists and technologists to explore their technoerotic fascinations. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to approach the machines consciously and cautiously, and consider their relationship to them. The machines will also develop their own relationship with the space they inhabit and any body that approaches them. As they approach breakdown they will be repaired, reconfigured and replaced. This act will be a performative element of the exhibition but not quite a performance.
Alex says about his work: “Even in 1932, mechanologists like Jacques Lafitte were seeking to break down the perceived barrier between what was considered human and what was considered machine. Of course, robots had already been invented and were often (like Fritz Lang’s Maria in Metropolis) running amok, tearing down the human world. Now, while we continue to be anxious about the machine, our intimacies with metal and silicon have never been greater. We love (and hate) machines. The relationships explored in Love Machines are a little less violent than much Science Fiction but no less intimate. Hopefully in this exhibition there is a level of (self)love in the material exchanges experienced by the viewer, the artist and the machines.”